Exploration of Uranus

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A colour photograph of Uranus, taken by Voyager 2 in 1986 as it headed towards the planet Neptune

The exploration of Uranus has, to date, been solely through telescopes and NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft, which made its closest approach to Uranus on January 24, 1986. Voyager 2 discovered 10 moons, studied the planet's cold atmosphere, and examined its ring system, discovering two new rings. It also imaged Uranus' five large moons, revealing that their surfaces are covered with impact craters and canyons.

A number of dedicated exploratory missions to Uranus have been proposed, but as of 2015 none have been formally approved.[1][2]

Voyager 2[edit]

Voyager 2 made its closest approach to Uranus on January 24, 1986, coming within 81,500 kilometers (50,600 mi) of the planet's cloud tops. This was the probe's first solo planetary flyby, since Voyager 1 ended its tour of the outer planets at Saturn's moon Titan.

The Uranian moon Miranda, imaged by Voyager 2

Uranus is the third-largest planet in the Solar System. It orbits the Sun at a distance of about 2.8 billion kilometers (1.7 billion miles) and completes one orbit every 84 years. The length of a day on Uranus as measured by Voyager 2 is 17 hours and 14 minutes. Uranus is distinguished by the fact that it is tipped on its side. Its unusual position is thought to be the result of a collision with a planet-sized body early in the Solar System's history. Given its odd orientation, with its polar regions exposed to sunlight or darkness for long periods, scientists were not sure what to expect at Uranus.

The presence of a magnetic field at Uranus was not known until Voyager's arrival. The intensity of the field is roughly comparable to that of Earth's, though it varies much more from point to point because of its large offset from the center of Uranus. The peculiar orientation of the magnetic field suggests that the field is generated at an intermediate depth in the interior where the pressure is high enough for water to become electrically conductive. Voyager 2 found that one of the most striking influences of the sideways position of the planet is its effect on the tail of the magnetic field, which is itself tilted 60 degrees from the planet's axis of rotation. The magnetotail was shown to be twisted by the planet's rotation into a long corkscrew shape behind the planet.

Radiation belts at Uranus were found to be of an intensity similar to those at Saturn. The intensity of radiation within the belts is such that irradiation would quickly darken (within 100,000 years) any methane trapped in the icy surfaces of the inner moons and ring particles. This may have contributed to the darkened surfaces of the moons and ring particles, which are almost uniformly gray in color.

A high layer of haze was detected around the sunlit pole, which also was found to radiate large amounts of ultraviolet light, a phenomenon dubbed "electroglow". The average temperature of the atmosphere of the planet is about 59 kelvins. Surprisingly, the illuminated and dark poles, and most of the planet, show nearly the same temperature at the cloud tops.

A Voyager 2 image of the Uranian dark rings

Voyager found 10 new moons, bringing the total number to 15 at the time. Most of the new moons are small, with the largest measuring about 150 kilometers (about 90 miles) in diameter.

The moon Miranda, innermost of the five large moons, was revealed to be one of the strangest bodies yet seen in the Solar System. Detailed images from Voyager's flyby of the moon showed huge oval structures termed coronae flanked by faults as deep as 20 kilometers (12 mi), terraced layers, and a mixture of old and young surfaces. One theory holds that Miranda may be a reaggregation of material from an earlier time when the moon was fractured by a violent impact.

The five large moons appear to be ice-rock conglomerates like the satellites of Saturn. Titania is marked by huge fault systems and canyons indicating some degree of geologic, probably tectonic, activity in its history. Ariel has the brightest and possibly youngest surface of all the Uranian moons and also appears to have undergone geologic activity that led to many fault valleys and what seem to be extensive flows of icy material. Little geologic activity has occurred on Umbriel or Oberon, judging by their old and dark surfaces.

All nine previously known rings were studied by the spacecraft and showed the Uranian rings to be distinctly different from those at Jupiter and Saturn. The ring system may be relatively young and did not form at the same time as Uranus. Particles that make up the rings may be remnants of a moon that was broken by a high-velocity impact or torn up by gravitational effects. Voyager 2 also discovered two new rings.

Proposed missions[edit]

A number of missions to Uranus have been proposed. Scientists from the Mullard Space Science Laboratory in the United Kingdom have proposed the joint NASA–ESA Uranus Pathfinder mission to Uranus. A call for a medium-class (M-class) mission to the planet to be launched in 2022 was submitted to the ESA in December 2010 with the signatures of 120 scientists from across the globe. The ESA caps the cost of M-class missions at 470 million.[3][1][4]

In 2009, a team of planetary scientists from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory advanced possible designs for a solar-powered Uranus orbiter. The most favorable launch window for such a probe would be in August 2018, with arrival at Uranus in September 2030. The science package may include magnetometers, particle detectors and, possibly, an imaging camera.[5]

In the 2011 decadal survey for the future potential of planetary exploration, the United States National Research Council recommended a Uranus orbiter and probe. However, this mission is considered to be lower-priority than future missions to Mars and the Jovian System.[2][6]

A mission to Uranus is one of several proposed uses under consideration for the unmanned variant of NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS) currently in development. The SLS would reportedly be capable of launching up to 0.13 metric tons to Uranus in its initial configuration using the interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (iCPS), and up to 2 metric tons with the most powerful proposed configuration of the Large Upper Stage (LUS).[7]

In 2013, it was proposed to use an E-Sail to send an atmospheric entry probe to Uranus.[8]

In 2015 NASA announced it had begun a feasibility study into the possibility of orbital missions to Uranus and Neptune, within a budget of $2 billion in 2015 dollars. According to NASA’s planetary science director Jim Green, who initiated the study, such missions would launch in the late 2020s at the earliest, and would be contingent upon their endorsement by the planetary science community, as well as NASA’s ability to provide nuclear power sources for the spacecraft.[9]


  1. ^ a b Sutherland, Paul (January 7, 2011). "Scientists plan Uranus probe". Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved January 16, 2011. 
  2. ^ a b Deborah Zabarenko (March 7, 2011). "Lean U.S. missions to Mars, Jupiter moon recommended". Reuters. Retrieved March 13, 2011. 
  3. ^ Arridge, Chris (2010). "Uranus Pathfinder". Retrieved January 10, 2011. 
  4. ^ ESA official website: "Call for a Medium-size mission opportunity for a launch in 2022". January 16, 2011. Retrieved January 16, 2011.
  5. ^ Hofstadter, Mark (2009). "The Case for a Uranus Orbiter and How it Addresses Satellite Science" (PDF). Retrieved May 26, 2012.  See also a draft.
  6. ^ "Vision and Voyages for Planetary Science in the Decade 2013-2022" (PDF) (Press release). National Academies. 2011. Retrieved March 7, 2011. 
  7. ^ Gebhardt, Chris (November 20, 2013). "New SLS mission options explored via new Large Upper Stage". NASAspaceflight.com. 
  8. ^ Fast E-sail Uranus entry probe mission
  9. ^ Leone, Dan (August 25, 2015). "NASA To Study Uranus, Neptune Orbiters". Space News. 


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